GLYNN COUNTY, Ga. — While state investigators launch a probe into how police and prosecutors handled the onset of the Ahmaud Arbery murder case, Georgia lawmakers are set to decide on a measure that would allow voters to get rid of the police department at the center of the Arbery case.
Lawmakers will revisit Senate Bill 504 when they return to the Capitol next month. It calls for a November ballot referendum and would allow voters to decide whether county leaders should disband the Glynn County Police Department and merge resources under the county sheriff’s office.
SB 504 and a previous piece of similar legislation were introduced by Republican south Georgia state Senator Bill Ligon earlier this year. The bill was a direct response to controversy surrounding the Glynn County Police Department before the Arbery shooting. Specifically, Ligon said it was a recent grand jury presentment on a sex scandal with drug informants, and accusations of witness tampering. The case, centered around Glynn PD’s narcotics unit, led to several officer indictments in March, including that of police Chief John Powell for witness tampering and violation of oath of office.
County leaders in their response to the grand jury presentment have defended Powell, saying he called in the GBI when he learned details of the accusations.
But another officer’s testimony was jarring to Ligon and set the stage to craft his bill.
“When the GBI came in and investigated, he said I would not talk to the GBI and I would encourage the officers under me not to talk to the GBI,” Ligon said.
The original bill that was introduced in January could have affected county police departments across the state and was challenged for its legality. SB 504 is aimed directly at Glynn County PD and its voters. Ligon said a vote to move it forward was originally set for the day after the legislature let out for the COVID-19 pandemic. It awaits lawmaker in June.
“I would be willing to bet that this bill is going to pass the senate and the house with flying colors in view of what just happened (with Arbery),” said Ligon, pointing out the same distrust issues surrounding the Arbery case.
Ligon said the idea of local law enforcement under an elected office may eliminate some of those issues.
“Can you imagine someone running for sheriff on a platform: ‘Well I want to; I’m not going to cooperate with investigations from outside law enforcement’? To have that sort of culture as part of your legacy or your record? You’re not going to be re-elected,” he explained.
Glynn County Commission Chair Mike Browning is still challenging the legality and effectiveness of abolishing a county police department.
“You say you all will take them to court over this? If this passes through?" asked investigative reporter Nicole Carr.
“That is our intentions,” Browning answered. “We cannot allow willy-nilly efforts if you will to attack the local governance.”
Browning maintains that the police department’s fate should be decided by the county’s elected officials, who were charged with acting on grand jury recommendations. As an aside, the commission has largely defended Glynn PD’s actions in the early days of the Arbery murder, saying their decision not to make immediate arrests was based on instructions from Brunswick and Waycross District Attorneys Jackie Johnson and George Barnhill.
Johnson slammed the idea late last week, saying her office has no arresting powers and did not impede investigators before her recusal from the case. The state attorney general is now examining their early actions.
“This issue can be handled here locally, and we’re handling this issue,” Browning said of the police department’s role in recent, controversial cases.
Browning also indicated it was in the best legal interest of the county government to promptly address problems tied to parts of the Glynn County Police Department, without a ballot referendum.
“We’re the local government," Browning added. “People hold us responsible even when we’re not the ones doing the screw ups.”
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